The Impact of Bullying
(A Story on the Power of Words)
Words are so incredibly powerful.
They have the potential to move us all; any single one of us.
Whether they’re hopeful, or sad, encouraging, or mean, they are capable of delivering a punch to the gut – for better, or for worse.
I’ve seen words move the bravest of people to tears and the grouchiest of the bunch to smiles. Even the happy-go-lucky among us have boiled up in anger when just the right blend of them hits us where it counts.
An entire day can instantaneously turn upside down – or right side up, depending on substance and delivery – when the impact is absorbed.
Why do words affect us so much, when they’re just a bunch of letters, strung together, and then shared?
More so, how is a single one – or even two, as in my case – capable of eliciting such guttural reactions, striking a nerve and then staying caged in our memory banks forever?
I share my story below, with analysis intertwined within.
Words started it all.
Blindsided, I took their hit.
I was still in my innocent years; not in the milk-stains-around-my lips sense (they say that in my culture, to insinuate that someone is young and inexperienced), but in lacking a real understanding of the harsh nature of the real world. Even as an immigrant.
The words came at me without warning, with quick, but powerful jabs.
* Here comes Chia! *
* Hey, Chia Pet! *
* Ch, Ch, Ch Chia! *
They were like knives – each one sharper than the last – inflicting damage with each thrust. Even worse was the twist of their handle, which came when those around him took part in the kill. Stabbed and bleeding, I retreated, trying to shelter myself – my emotions – from the barrage.
There, in the shadows of a middle school awning, I stood helplessly – a 12-year old, freckle-faced child, with uncombable hair.
I've seen words move the bravest of people to tears & the grouchiest of the bunch to smiles. Even the happy-go-lucky among us have boiled up in anger when just the right blend of them hits us where it counts. Click To Tweet
My eyes cowered in shame as I pulled my schoolbook bag close in to my chest. I needed it there, to hold pressure on the punctured soul beneath. I thought, at that moment, of all the feasible ways – and some that were not – I could change my looks, and make the taunting end.
But instead, I just buried myself deeper into the comfort of my hiding place, a school corner where I stood alone.
In the midst of those confusing teenage years – worse, ‘tweenagehood’ – where confidence seemed to hang by every thread of our peers’ spoken word, I couldn’t think of anything worse I could have been called.
My First Time.
I remember him, the child who labeled me with those hurtful words – that very first time.
I remember because it was the first time of many. He was my Tormentor Zero.
It’s like in medicine, where we define our patient zero as:
“The index case or initial patient in the population of an epidemiological investigation.”
He was the first of MY epidemiological outbreak; the infectious source of what turned out to be continual name-calling, and for years. I would have called myself Bullied Zero, to really make the metaphor stand out, but I won’t. Because the focus then shifts on me and I don’t really want to let him off so easily.
I know I’m not the first to have experienced this. Bullying is an age-old pastime, even if it hasn’t always gone by that name.
We find it everywhere, from classic books like Of Mice and Men to movies and television shows like Back to the Future, and more recent productions, like Stranger Things. I’m not ashamed that it took place in my own life’s production either – clearly not in the least bit, as I’m publicly sharing my story here – and I bet that it’s featured in even more than we know.
I set out to look for the root of the term – the hateful bully – and stumbled on surprising findings. The origin of the word, it seems, dates back many centuries, and seems to have drastically changed its meaning over time.
It started out as a good thing, in fact.
Its meaning? A ‘sweetheart,’ and then ‘friend’, and then evolving to adapt the negative connotation that it has today, some time around the late 1700’s. You’ll recognize its current Merriam Webster definition, described as:
“A blustering, browbeating person; especially one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.”
My Tormentor Zero.
My bully was Tormentor Zero, and he spread his evil intentions with communicable fierceness.
Others, in turn, contract the bullying mentality – it’s highly infectious! – through droplets of ill will, and spew it forward, without regard for their impact. A good laugh at that age must have been hard to come by, because doing it satisfied a craving, even if it was on my behalf.The #infectious contagiousness of #bullying occurs when droplets of ill will are spewed forward, without regard for impact. A good laugh must be hard to come by, because bullying satisfies a craving. Always on the bullied's behalf. Click To Tweet
The infectious nature of it all had quite an effect on me, at that age.
I began seeking shelter from my bullies, avoiding their path when feasibly possible. Yet my dread fueled their malice, an ironic twist that serves to keep the viral cycle at play.
In fact, the impact of their words is so significant that, of the forty years I’ve lived, the memory remains imprinted in my mind – and the power of that isn’t lost on me. Looking back, I can’t recall the majority of events from childhood – certainly not the day-to-day minutia exchanged with my peers – except for this.
This one sticks.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.
Why did this, of all memories, become engrained in my mind, painfully recounted now, as an older, more confident adult? I delve into the possible reasons in another of my articles, out shortly, Why Negative Memories Become Our Forever Memories (a working title).
Regardless of how my own specifics came to be, to my tormentors I was Chia Pet, whereas countless of others have been F*ckfaces, Losers, Numbnuts and D*ckwads. If it hurt back then, well, that was too bad – you had to get over it.
Now that I’m older – and wiser and stronger (cue the popular song by Kanye West, which I’m listening to as I type out the word and happen to find truly empowering) – I find that looking back, and dissecting it all, gives me a strange kind of pleasure.
As a physician especially, I enjoy trying to understand human behaviors – the whys and the hows of people’s actions – and because of this, regularly engage in reflections of my past. Because I am stronger.
I think about myself sometimes – both present and past me – and find myself laughing. I laugh because I am confident – emotionally strong – and because being strong means having the ability to not only see how insignificant things like this actually are, in the grand scheme of things, but also how valuable it can be to laugh at them in hindsight.
I considered referring to my experience – described above – as a first world problem, as I wrote up this story. But it isn’t. Because interactions like mine can lead to serious consequences, especially when they involve children who don’t necessarily have the support systems I had in place. To them, a single word or two can literally mean the difference between life or death.
Here’s the rather cool conclusion I come to now, in revisiting the experience, and the mean words uttered by my bullies so long ago. The very same words I cowered from, under that awning back in the day, were actually responsible for the very strength that I have today.
In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (and then rhymed again by West):
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Never have truer words been spoken. They exert power, just like Tormentor Zero’s words. Except they make me feel good.
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